Gear Tips and the Taxonomy of Australian Snow

Some say the Inuit and Scandinavian languages have between 50 and 300 words to describe snow*.   There’s snow that falls slowly: tlaslo, and snow that falls quickly: tlapinti.  There’s snow that has been packed down: pactla, and snow that is blowing around: blotla.

In Australia we have our own taxonomy of snow: sleety, heavy, sloppy, wet, slushy, damp, melting, icy, windblown and the occasional dump of powder.

If you’re not from Australia you might be surprised to hear that we get snow here at all. Yes! We do. We even have a whole mountain range named for it: The Snowy Mountains.   And lately it seems to be snowing more and more (though not necessarily where you want it, much to the chagrin of ski hill owners).  Last week in the Blue Mountains, where I’ve been living for years, they had an 18cm dump which covered the landscape from plateau to gully – almost unheard of – and settled for days.  Here in Tasmania we can get snow any time of the year.

Unexpected snowstorm in May, Mt Wellington, Tasmania

Unexpected snowstorm in May, Mt Wellington, Tasmania

Adventuring and camping in the Australian snow is beautiful.  Instead of the northern hemisphere pines you’ll find the graceful arcing limbs of snow gums with brightly-coloured streaks of ochre and peach along their trunks.  Instead of jagged summits and steep couloirs you’ll find wide plateaus, gentle undulations and rolling summits strewn with granite boulders.

Snowy Mountains, Australia

Snowy Mountains, Australia

Beautiful as it is, the snow here can also be harsh.  The wind blows fierce and unobstructed across the exposed ranges and the relatively warm temps mean that the you’ll often transition from rain to sleet to snow as you ascend and descend.  In Tasmania the weather blows across the Southern Ocean direct from Antarctica- that’s some fetch.

I love hiking and skiing in the Aussie snow.  The wind and spindrift and stinging ice, it’s invigorating!  At the same time, I really like to be comfortable at the end of the day.  After spending a fair amount of time cold and wet in the snow I’ve picked up some habits that help keep me happy when the weather’s a bit wild.  I wish I’d known some of these things back when I started hanging out in the snow, so I thought I’d share them here.  They’re not hard and fast rules but they work for me.

[*Caveat: This obviously isn’t a comprehensive guide to preparing for an Australian alpine adventure, just some personal tips to enhance your comfort and help you avoid some rookie errors.]

Snowfall on Tassie's temperate rainforest

Snowfall on Tassie’s temperate rainforest

To start with, here are three things you’ve just got to get right:

1.  Eating: check your stove before you leave. Just do it.  If it’s fresh out of the box it could be faulty (I’ve had that).  If it’s old it could need maintenance (that happened too).  And if your stove is field-maintainable, take a repair kit.

2.  Staying warm:  always keep a spare set of dry clothes in its own waterproof bag (see below) in your pack.  These clothes stay in their dry bag until you’re in your tent and settling in for the night.  Putting these clothes on at the end of the day is something I find myself fantasising about just a little on cold, wet slogs. I usually keep thermals, undies, gloves, beanie and warm socks in this grab bag.  My down jacket has its own dry bag.

3.  Drinking: keep your water water.  Insulate your water bottles with a water bottle cover like this one.  If you attach it to the outside of your pack it’s also a nice way to keep your water bottle accessible.

Outdoor Research Water Bottle Parka

Outdoor Research Water Bottle Parka

If you don’t want to buy one of these, you can make your own out of closed cell foam and gaffa tape.

If you have a water bladder, think about getting an insulated neoprene cover for the hose.  Water rarely freezes in the main reservoir but it will probably freeze in the tube.  You can buy a purpose-made insulator, make one yourself or try to remember to blow the water back into the main reservoir when you’re done drinking.  Just make sure you don’t forget – and don’t blow too hard or you’ll end up with a water balloon in your pack!

Snow near Junction Cabin, Mt Wellington, Tasmania

Snow near Junction Cabin, Mt Wellington, Tasmania

One of the most important things to do in the snow is keep your gear as dry as possible.  This is less of an issue in many snowy contexts because snow is usually quite dry.  In Australia though, keeping your gear dry will become an art or an obsession, probably both.

1.  Make sure you waterproof your pack completely.  A pack cover on the outside is not enough.  You can buy a waterproof pack liner from an outdoor store or visit a vet and ask for one of their ‘dead dog’ bags.  It might seem a bit morbid, but they actually work really well as pack liners.  You can also use tough bin liners.  If you use these, double up and seal them by twisting the top tightly – tying a knot will make them easy to explode and hard to reuse 🙂

2.  As well as lining your whole pack, you might like to to keep your things in separate dry bags inside your pack – especially key gear like your sleeping bag, night clothes and down jacket.  Compartmentalising like this will help you find things more easily and allow you to unload your pack without worrying about getting everything wet (especially if it’s raining).  No matter what measures you take, all your gear will probably get wet to some extent, whether through condensation or exposure to rain and snow.  It can be nice to keep the damp, wet and sopping separated.

Exped Dry Bags

Exped Dry Bags

3.  Bring a couple of spare plastic bags to stash wet gear and boots at the end of the day.  Leaving boots in the tent vestibule overnight can leave them vulnerable to spindrift, damp and freezing temps.  If you put them in a plastic bag you can store them in the tent.   With ski boots, take the inners inside and leave the outers in the vestibule.

4.  If you have wet socks or underwear, try drying them overnight by wringing them out and stuffing them down your top or just putting them in your sleeping bag with you. You might be a little chilly initially, but if your sleeping bag and mat are insulating enough and you’ve had a good feed and drink you will warm up within an hour.  If you tend to sleep cold, sort out a Nalgene hot water bottle.

5.  Do everything you can to keep your sleeping bag dry.  It’s quite common for condensation to get your sleeping bag and mat wet in the snow and this is not good.  Down sleeping bags in particular lose their insulating capacity when they’re wet, so this is a real risk.  The best ways I know to manage this are:

  • Open the vents in your tent.  It might be a bit colder but reducing the temperature inside the tent reduces the build-up of condensation.  Make sure your sleeping bag is warm enough for the conditions you’re in.
  • Choose a sleeping bag with DWR treated down or a waterproof shell for alpine adventures.
  • Take an absorbent cloth or chamois to wipe the moisture off your gear in the morning.
  • If you’re doing a lot of camping in wet snow – particularly if you’re staying in snow caves – take a look at the synthetic sleeping bags on the market.  They insulate more effectively than down when they’re wet.
  • Store your sleeping bag in a waterproof compression bag inside your pack liner.
  • Always take an emergency blanket or survival bag in case your sleeping bag gets irretrievably wet.
  • Know about any huts in the area – and know how to navigate using a map and compass in whiteout conditions –  so that you can find shelter (and hopefully a fireplace stocked with wood) if things go pear shaped.

For more tips on caring for your sleeping bag, check out this post.

Ok, I think this is enough for now.

I hope these ideas get you thinking about ways to keep yourself as comfortable as possible in uncomfortable conditions, because it’s always worth getting out.  You don’t want to let a bit of weather stop you from witnessing the planet at its wildest.

Du Cane Range, Tasmania

Du Cane Range, Tasmania

* There’s been quite a lively debate around the legitimacy of this claim by linguists who study the science of language.  The best overview of the debate I found was actually on Wikipedia.

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